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Becoming Modern: The Mass Home and the Right to Comfort

At Home in Postwar FranceAfter World War II, France embarked on a project of modernization, which included the development of the modern mass home. At Home in Postwar France identifies the “right to comfort” as an invention of the postwar period and suggests that the modern mass home played a vital role in shaping new expectations for well-being and happiness. Below, author Nicole C. Rudolph discusses her inspiration for writing this book.


What inspired your study of modern housing in post-World War II France?


Accounts of 1945-1975 in France, a period known as the Thirty Glorious Years, usually put emphasis on the rapid economic expansion that purportedly made that era “glorious”. The term “Thirty Glorious Years” itself came from economist and sociologist Jean Fourastié’s book Les trente glorieuses, ou la révolution invisible de 1946 à 1975. His book, which has one of the most dramatic prefaces in all of social science, introduced readers to the inhabitants of Madère, an “underdeveloped” village where sickness and drudgery hampered the everyday lives of its inhabitants, and to the inhabitants of Cessac, whose quotidian existences had been made more comfortable and enjoyable by technology (automobiles and household appliances), as well as by changes in the structure of employment. The reader then learns –– spoiler alert! –– that these two villages are, in fact, one and the same, the village of Douelle, in Quercy, separated only by the three decades of modernization.


 Typically, scholarly discussions of the Thirty Glorious Years have focused on the net results of France’s explicit drive to modernize, favorably evaluating the economic planning that made growth possible. But when I was in graduate school learning about Fourth and Fifth Republic France, my question was, what did the modernization project feel like to the French who lived through those decades? Becoming modern was not simply a question of maximizing productivity in the industrial sector. Fourastié, to his credit, tried to evaluate modernization’s social, cultural, and even physiological effects on the French, but, because his argument rested on a comparison of 1946 France and 1975 France as discrete entities, it was difficult to tell how the national modernizing project might have felt to the French as they were experiencing it. It occurred to me that the massive “towers and bars” that sprang up and dotted the French landscape over the course of the same period would be an excellent site for a study of the Trente Glorieuses as lived experience.


What, then, inspired you to write this book?


Monique Éleb and Anne Debarre’s book L’Invention de l’Habitation moderne and Delores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution, especially, brought to my attention ways in which social change and social roles are literally built in to domestic space. Hayden’s book also got me to thinking about what is not built and why that may be, and it struck me that comparing the built and the non-built as a methodology could be a compelling way of understanding the debates and choices about how to dwell in a modern France.


When I first began my research, I came across a feature in a 1946 magazine entitled, “Do the French Want an Eat-In Kitchen?” As an American – Americans eat everywhere, on subways, in classrooms, at their desks, walking down the street – I found this question odd. What difference could it possibly make? And besides, wasn’t the nation a little busy at the moment with preparation of a comprehensive social security program, bombs in Indochina, a referendum on the Constitution, and consideration of the Monnet Plan? The fact that public opinion on the home was being sought confirmed that I was on the right track with my study, because the French did feel something was at stake in the design of the modern mass home. As my book shows, that “something” was no less than a classless society, the preservation of the nuclear family with a stay-at-home housewife, and the democratization of comfort.


Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?


Well, at the beginning, I thought I was writing about housing and social engineering––and I was––, but as I worked through the material it because apparent to me that housing was an important vector for a concomitant change in mentalités. That was why I chose to open the book with the epigraph from Joan Didion, written toward the end of the 1960s: “How recent the idea is that life should be ‘comfortable,’ that those who live it should be ‘happy.’” Put another way, the modern mass home was a key vehicle for establishing to the French that they had a right to comfort, to happiness, to fulfillment. This story also parallels the journey of commodities from luxury to necessity; how did central heat and hot running water, a pipe dream (so to speak!) for so many French families in 1945, become the bare minimum for a living space?


What aspect of writing this work did you find most challenging?


I come from the history-from-below camp, and I didn’t want to tell the story of the French mass home without the voices of residents or would-be residents. I would have liked to have conducted my own oral histories with first- and second-generation inhabitants of grands ensembles, but one of the constraints of being a North American scholar working on France is that it costs a great deal of money to live and work there for any length of time, and I didn’t have enough funding to do both archival research and oral histories. Luckily for me, the period of writing the book has coincided with French plans to renovate or demolish some of these housing complexes, and, in this process, France, with its concerns about patrimoine, has been sending teams of ethnographers to interview first- and second-generation grand ensemble residents. Their publications have really helped me.


Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


Controversial might be too much to hope for! But some may be disturbed by the ways in which mass-produced grands ensembles figure in my narrative. I argue that the success of housing in raising the standard of everyday life has been underestimated by scholars and calls for a recalibration of our evaluations of the French Fourth and Fifth Republic. It’s worth recalling that, as late as 1954, nearly 75% of French homes did not have a toilet on the premises. 87% of town and city dwellers lacked a built-in bathtub or shower in 1955! Grands ensembles, even as they are understood today as sites of social segregation and exclusion, eased many of the challenges of day-to-day life for the first generation of inhabitants, including something as mundane––but as vital––as the need to procure wood, oil or coal for heating purposes. So I think the grands ensembles, as objects of historical study, can figure significantly in stories other than the “problems of the suburbs” and in ways that highlight other kinds of questions. For example, in doing the research for this book, I couldn’t help but be struck by the involvement of public policymakers in the nitty-gritty of women’s daily lives. Even when misguided, postwar planners’ efforts to ease the burden of housework on women – coming down to trying to figure out an optimal height for kitchen counters so that water didn’t run down the housewife’s elbows when she did the dishes – finds no echo today, in the era of the second shift. I think that says something about what societies find valuable.


I also argue against some dominant interpretations of French domestic architecture and its place in the urban landscape. Among these is the notion that Modernists were able to implement radical notions about modern living through design. If you really analyze Modernist-designed floor plans for the postwar period, you see that the great majority of them are simply re-worked versions of prewar public housing for the middle class. Modern mass homes of the postwar period were not miniature versions of the Villa Savoye or even French versions of existenzminimum homes. Moreover, the notion that Modernist-designed collective housing somehow boosted inhabitants’ investment in civil society is patently false; individual needs were always the focus of Modernist home design.


Who is one iconic figure featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?


Eugène Claudius-Petit, the French housing minister from 1948-1952, is someone who played a formative role in the French urban landscape and is a fascinating figure in and of himself. Trained as a woodworker, Claudius-Petit was a Résistant and social Catholic, and it was he who really oriented state policy in the direction of high-density, high-rise, Modernist housing complexes. As housing minister, Claudius-Petit championed Le Corbusier and other Modernist architects and pushed the state to set production targets to resolve the housing crisis as quickly as possible. Because of this, some might cast him as a villain, but he really tried to formulate a humanist vision of modernization and was a critic of the administration’s subsequent policy of “statistical architecture.” Advocating for workers, including Algerian workers, he is a complex and somewhat under-studied figure, although there is now a good biography of him (Benoît Pouvreau’s Un politique en architecture). Even as I didn’t agree with his top-down approach to planning, I admired Claudius-Petit’s commitment to a humanist architecture.


What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


I make an argument in the book about the need to link the history of domestic space with larger, macro-level histories. We don’t tend to think about design history as political, and yet, as I show, it can be part of processes like nation-building and democratization. Furthermore, I think we are at a moment when Western notions of dwelling, the relationship of the home to the community, and ideas about public and private life are being re-shaped by factors like climate change and social media, so the time is ripe for historians outside of architectural history to historicize housing, looking at domestic space in the context of––and constitutive of––political, social and cultural changes.



Read more about this book here.